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The Legacy of Stanley Kubrick.

THE SUDDEN DEMISE this spring of master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was overshadowed by the death the following day of baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. It seemed that even Hollywood couldn't offer Kubrick his due. His eulogy at the 1999 Oscar ceremony was a bit slight, in part because Kubrick made relatively few pictures from which the show's producers could draw clips with which to reminisce. He emphasized quality over quantity, often letting a decade go by without making a film.

After making his bones with intriguing noir-style thrillers like "Killer's Kiss" (1955) and "The Killing" (1956), Kubrick was rapidly perceived as an industrious and inventive director who could take on--even salvage--major productions. The historical epic "Spartacus" (1960) doesn't look much like a Kubrick work, but it contains many earmarks of the director and is a significant breakthrough. The story of the first peoples' revolution, the slave revolt against the Roman Empire, Kubrick's vision of antiquity had little in common with the Technicolor images of those overstuffed Bible films of the 1950s and 1960s. The ancient world is portrayed as vicious, with a class struggle caused by a ruling authority that is shamefully amoral, ruthless, and pragmatic. The scene in the arena, where Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is spared by a gladiator (Woody Strode) who would rather strike at a patrician onlooker than kill a fellow slave, is one of the most poignant moments of the postwar cinema and one of the screen's best meditations on violence as spectator sport. Kubrick brought blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo back from exile--with the help of Douglas--to give "Spartacus" its political edge and allegorical aspect that cut deep into Cold War America. As grand an effort as is evident in "Spartacus," it is a prelude to Kubrick's evolution as an artist.

"Lolita" (1962) contains Kubrick's caustic humor, but it is an oddly alienating work that lacks the eroticism one would expect given the subject matter of its source in Vladimir Nabokov's novel. Yet, the very aridity of "Lolita" offered a strong hint of the worldview Kubrick was in the process of developing. His next effort, the Cold War satire "Dr. Strangelove," (1964) put him over the top. The film's icy, documentary-style aspect served not only to give the movie its realistic edge that juxtaposed nicely with its broad satire, the style introduced the essential Kubrick setting. The alienating, hyperrealist offices, expressionist lighting, and clean geometric lines gave "Dr. Strangelove" a visionary sense of menace. The notion of the banality of evil developed by philosopher Hannah Arendt becomes palpable in Kubrick's parody of phallic authority. The opening shots of a B-52 having simulated intercourse with a tanker that is refueling it; the glowering images of Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) worrying about his sex life; the low-angle images of the cigar-chewing maniac Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden); and the fired-up Major Kong (Slim Pickens) riding an H-bomb like a bucking bronco go beyond Kubrick's caustic contempt for the national security state. They introduce his sense of nature red in tooth and claw, a vision of humanity headed for the abyss that some critics would see as evidence of the director's basic nihilism.

Every Kubrick film contains an emblematic image--a close shot of a man with his head slightly bowed, eyes looking upward, and lips pulled back to reveal teeth in a rictus grin. It is an image of man as primordial beast that is foregrounded in most of Kubrick's films and reveals his skepticism toward the human enterprise. It appears several times on the faces of the sadistic Alex and his "droogs" in "A Clockwork Orange" (1971). Jack Nicholson practically milks the image in "The Shining" (1980), and immortalizes it as he sits frozen at the picture's finale. In "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), it occurs repeatedly, most notably when a tormented recruit (Vincent D'Onofrio) kills his boot camp drill instructor, and later when a soldier (Matthew Modine) slays a young woman and realizes what he has become. The man-as-animal thesis is rampant in the latter film as viewers see a platoon of grunts sloshing through mud like water buffalo.

Kubrick's most visionary work, "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), may be his greatest testament. His craft and style are extraordinary, owing as much to the American avant-garde as to scifi, although it is widely thought that the picture gave the genre respectability. A puzzle to many even as it is so respected and enjoyed, "2001" is probably the skeleton key to unlock Kubrick's sense of human civilization. The prelude, the opening image of the cosmos against the first notes of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra," is grand and deceptively simple. Seen by many--including singer Elvis Presley and a host of ill-advised celebrities and sports figures--as a Nietzschean moment of an unfettered humanity triumphant, the scene has the usual Kubrick sarcasm.

It is followed by the Dawn of Man sequence, showing a family of apes learning the fine art of murder from a mysterious monolith that becomes the film's red herring. The clincher of this sequence is the image of the head ape throwing aloft a large bone--which he has just discovered can be used as a weapon--as "Also Sprach Zarathustra" again booms on the soundtrack. The bone twirls through the air in close-up, and there is a jarring cut to the 21st century, as the bone becomes a gigantic space station off some unknown galaxy.

The point is hard to miss: For all of the scientific strides--indeed, perhaps because of them--humanity has evolved very little. The monolith is Kubrick's version of the Great Whatsit, the concretization of the search for meaning that fills every Ingmar Bergman film. Kubrick was not entirely disdainful of this search, one that has permeated the Western intellectual tradition, but he was always skeptical that it would lead to anything particularly comforting or revelatory.

Christopher Sharrett, Associate Mass Media Editor of USA Today, is associate professor of communication, Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J.
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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